In the late ‘70s, as punk rose in its exposure post-Never Mind the Bollocks, Gang Of Four threw down the gauntlet regarding the young genre’s ultimate capabilities. While other bands imitated The Sex Pistols’ gruffness (both in how the band members looked and what Johnny Rotten said), Andy Gill and Jon King hammered out an honest, furious, and yet ridiculously catchy sound that was as thoughtful as it was uncomfortable.
When the landmark album Entertainment! was released in 1979, it came after the death of The Beatles and the rise of art rock like Todd Rundgren and Roxy Music, as well as new wave musicians like Elvis Costello, Television, and Talking Heads. The period was ripe for fusion, with artists mixing and matching styles and techniques, both musically and lyrically. Gill notes, “Part of the beauty of Gang Of Four is that it never sounds like a genre. I was thinking about many things in the period leading up to Gang Of Four’s first album [like] James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, dub reggae… I was kind of obsessed with the idea of what was ‘natural,’ that what we do and how we act are man-made constructions. I suppose that’s an idea which might come from Marxism/Feminism.”
Gang Of Four’s strong engagement with aesthetics and genre familiarization informs the band’s ability to experiment at will yet still maintain their sound. Gill’s dialectical reverse-engineering approach is what keeps Gang Of Four’s music so consistently fascinating. I can only imagine an early Gang Of Four live show, with the audience dancing to the strange rhythms of Solid Gold’s ”Cheeseburger” while singing along with, but not totally comprehending, the anti-capitalist sentiments and lyrics.
The band had an inimitable sensitivity to funky bass beats and unusually rich rhythms on guitar, which gave way to a kind of “dance punk” that has since been largely influential on LCD Soundsystem and Franz Ferdinand. Disco wasn’t out of the question for Gill (as can be clearly heard on Songs of the Free’s ”I Love A Man In Uniform”), and neither is pop in general, as he included German soft-rock singer Herbert Grönenmeyer on the band’s newest release What Happens Next. “What was interesting to us was to take different things from everywhere and to play with them, to change them, then serve them back up. That closed approach that punk often had sort of lacked imagination,” says Gill.
But this integral connection to pop music is key to Gill’s sensibility. With great seriousness, he asserts, “The idea that disco—whatever that is, because there’s a big crossover between disco and Motown and other forms of, essentially, Black music—[was rejected] by the punks on the basis that it’s commercial or something just seemed so insane… As far as we were concerned, it’s a really important musical force. You take ideas from everywhere, and sometimes you do whatever you do with them. Sometimes you aren’t subverting them completely.” However, there’s still a tug-and-pull battle between The Establishment and The Artist: How does one make a strong statement that can be easily crushed by higher powers that don’t want other people to hear such a thing? Gill had this issue when the band walked off BBC’s Top of the Pops because the network wanted Gang Of Four to change their lyrics for a performance.
“[W]hen we were initially asked to change a [lyric], we did. We changed the word ‘rubbers’ to ‘packets’… The BBC felt that the show was a family show and any reference to contraceptives would disgust people. But they then wanted us to change the word ‘packets’ to the word ‘rubbish’ so that the censorship would be concealed. That was what we most objected to and that’s why we walked off. It is extraordinary how the BBC gets very politically involved. We also had our song ‘I Love A Man In Uniform’ banned when the Falklands War was taking place. We in the UK criticize countries that have state-run media, but we should probably look a little closer at our own. As an artist, it’s not always easy making these decisions because we do want to get our material in front of people so they can be aware of it, but we also do not want to tacitly endorse that kind of moralistic censorship.”
Gang of Four will be at Tipitina’s on Sunday, October 25 with The New Regime opening. For more info, check out gangoffour.co.uk